Publication Date

December 1, 2006

What can college history departments do, with only minor curricular and institutional changes, to increase the understanding of history at all levels of schooling?1

This is the question that a group of historians, history teachers, and history education researchers considered at a June 2006 conference at Monticello. The conference was co-sponsored by the University of Virginia, the Carnegie Corporation, Monticello, and the National Council for History Education (NCHE) and included official representation from the AHA, the Organization of American Historians, the Gilder Lehrman Institute, and the National Council for the Social Studies. The participants at the conference began from the premise that due to a conjunction of factors we have reached a critical crossroads on this issue. Historians and history departments are now in a unique position to take the lead in the preparation of future history teachers due to the combination of increased funding for school/university collaboration (thanks to the Teaching American History grants) and the recognition in a boom of recent scholarship on the teaching and learning of history that history departments must serve as a centerpiece for the training of new history teachers. In a recent excellent survey summarizing this scholarship, Robert Bain and Jeffrey Mirel maintain that "beginning teachers must be steeped in the disciplines they teach, and having an undergraduate major is a reasonable proxy for assuming that students have such knowledge."2 The crucial point is what this major needs to look like in order to prepare the best possible teachers of history.

Only those who have the knowledge and understanding of this discipline can structure the history major in such a way as to make it most useful for future teachers of history. The goal of a college history department is to lead students toward knowledge and understanding of the discipline. It is not to teach students to memorize a bunch of random facts about the past. At the university level, we strive to teach our students how to grapple with the past in order to come to a better understanding of the past. Recent scholarship on how students at the K–12 level best understand history follows exactly this prescription. The participants in the Monticello conference will soon be publishing an extensive white paper on the subject, setting out in detail a series of suggestions for the improvement of the preparation of future history teachers. This essay is designed to briefly present a few recommendations that would be relatively easy to implement and which fit seamlessly into what should be the mission of every college history department. Specifically, history departments can improve their preparation of future history teachers by collaborating with schools and with colleges of education in pedagogical training, by more self-consciously modeling history teaching methodology, and by updating their curricula to better serve the future history teachers in their midst.

Why is it that in many places history departments have ceded the pedagogical training of students to colleges of education? Why does it make sense that those who study and research in fields such as educational policy, educational technology, or special education can, by themselves, provide future history teachers with the teaching tools they need to be effective? Bain and Mirel rightly contend that this represents an "additive" model of teacher preparation, where institutions simply slap teaching techniques on top of "content knowledge" in order to create an effective teacher. Instead, they argue, history faculty who best understand the "epistemology of the field," in collaboration with education faculty and with currently effective teachers of history, are best able to help move future teachers toward a "more sophisticated understanding of history."3 History departments must insist on a role in the formal pedagogical training of their own majors. This is already happening at many institutions across the country, from California State University at Long Beach to Illinois State University and Southern Mississippi University. Each institution does it differently, tailoring their participation to their own institutional needs and requirements, and there is no single “correct” model. All the models do share a sense of collaboration between history departments and colleges of education and between history departments and current teachers of history.

In my own personal experience at the University of Northern Colorado, I have developed the "Methods of Teaching History" class as a member of the history department. The course revolves around the "doing" of history, centering on concepts such as historiography, the use of primary sources, and the habits of mind in history that all historians are comfortable with. I have ceded two-thirds of the course presentations to local, model history teachers. I know that they share my understanding of history as a discipline and my dedication to the "content" of history. And, as history teacher Joseph Brysiewicz phrased it, "The collaboration of professor and schoolteacher is at the center of rethinking American history."4 I also know that they have a much better understanding of how K–12 students learn history, so it is to them that I turn to provide my students with a broad and deep understanding of what good history teaching can be.

This concept—of "what good history teaching can be"—leads to my second major recommendation for how history departments can do a better job of preparing future history teachers. I would argue that all successful and effective teachers of history at the university level understand what good history teaching can be. Whether articulated or not, all effective university faculty have a clear philosophy of teaching and are dedicated to presenting their material in a way that their students can most effectively learn the material. It is my belief that history faculty need to make this philosophy much more transparent and need to serve as models for the potential future teachers in their midst.

As an example of this, let us examine the most common form of history teaching at the university level, the lecture. Often, history teaching devolves into little more than standing in front of a room and explaining facts to students. But that is not what historians do—why should it be what history students do? Historians find the facts through research and try to put these facts together into some sort of historically meaningful sequence. Shouldn't historians spend class time leading their students through some of the same exercises that they themselves participate in when doing research? Shouldn't they ask students to work through primary sources, develop and discuss historical questions, and do so in a self-conscious and transparent way? Does that mean that historians should never lecture? No. Historians should lecture, because in some cases that is what historians do. It is our job to tell the stories of the past, and a thoughtful story in the form of lecture can be magical and meaningful.

istorians also craft and present arguments. We need to model for our students how that can be done, and there's no better way to do that than in a well-crafted lecture. All of us have, at one point or another in our career, been mesmerized by a brilliantly crafted argument presented by a passionate and thoughtful lecturer. This needs to be part of history teaching at all levels, and there is no one better able to exemplify this method than the historian.

A final area where history departments can better contribute to the training of future history teachers is in the area of curriculum and course offerings. History departments can help by offering more courses that cover broad chronological and thematic territory at the upper levels. We are doing a disservice to future history teachers if the only broad chronological course they take is the introductory survey course. History majors need to be encouraged to think broadly on topics throughout their university experience, not merely when they are in a first-year class with 200 other students.
To illustrate this point, let us examine a course I teach to upper-division students, “The U.S. and the Vietnam Wars.” I think it is a great course. The reading is wonderful; I have developed some exciting and engaging class activities; I give some terrific lectures. I firmly believe it will help them because of the training they are receiving in historical thinking. Hopefully I am also developing within these students a passion for history that if they choose to become teachers they will then transfer to their own classroom. Yet one-half of my students are future teachers, and they may use the content from the class for one week of their 32 weeks of teaching, if they are lucky enough to get to the 1960s before the end of the school year.

History majors also need to be presented with broad courses from which they can draw ideas that will help them throughout their teaching. I have developed a course entitled "Advanced Overview of U.S. History." This course is not a survey course; rather, it provides a "lily pad" approach to American history. We do not –cover" American history, rather we try to uncover answers to a wide array of historical problems across the broad sweep of American history. Historical questions serve as the heart of the course, and in every class I consciously model the method that I think best helps my students uncover the answers to these questions.

Such a broad and thematic upper-division course is not the only answer to the needs of future history teachers. Almost any broadly conceived and thematic course, from a women's history course to a military history course to a history of science course, could serve similar purposes. Departments might also restructure curricula to ensure that students receive an exposure to the wide array of historical questions that they will need to introduce their own students to in the future. The point is that history departments need to think in a conscious and systematic way about what courses and what course structure would best serve the future history teachers in their department. I would argue that ultimately, such thinking would best serve all of their majors, no matter what they plan to do after graduation. All of the majors need to be exposed to passionate and thoughtful teachers and to a set of courses that will broaden and deepen their understanding and appreciation of history.

— is professor of history and director of history education at the University of Northern Colorado.


1. For a discussion of this question, see Russel Olwell, “History Departments and the NCATE/NCSS Accreditation Process: Time for a Change,” Perspectives 44:5 (May 2006), 31. See also Robert Orrill and Linn Shapiro, “From Bold Beginnings to an Uncertain Future: The Discipline of History and History Education,”American Historical Review (June 2005), 728

2. Robert Bain and Jeffrey Mirel, “Setting Up Camp at the Great Instructional Divide: Educating Beginning History Teachers,” Journal of Teacher Education, 57:3 (May/June 2006), 213.

3. Ibid., 214.

4. Joseph Brysiewicz, “Collaboration: The Essential Element in the Teaching American History Initiative,” OAH Newsletter (November 2003).

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